Ooma VoIP Phone System Review

Ooma Core VoIP Phone SystemThere have been many technologies I’ve been skeptical of, none more so than Ooma, a VoIP phone service. If you don’t know what that means, essentially it is a way to make phone calls through your pre-existing internet connection as opposed to using a normal phone line. Ooma has several big selling points, all of them true.

  • You don’t need a running computer to use it.
  • You can hook up all your old normal phones to it.
  • Landline call quality.
  • Free US long distance. International calling available for pennies per minute.
  • Typical services like Caller-ID, call-waiting and voicemail are included.
  • And last but not least, the service is free.  There is also $100/year premier service that adds even more features like an extra phone line, extra phone number and the ability to check your voicemail online.

So what’s the catch?  Well, there are a few.

Purchase Hardware

You do have to purchase the Ooma Core VoIP Phone System.  That link goes to amazon which is the cheapest place to buy it from.  List price is $249.99 but amazon usually has it for much cheaper.


Because Ooma is an internet service, it isn’t for everyone.  You need to have at least some basic understanding of computer technology.  If you don’t know what an ethernet cable or router are, this product isn’t for you.

The first step is to actually activate your Ooma service which you can do through ooma.com.  It is a very short and simple process where you enter a few numbers on the bottom of the Ooma Hub and then select your primary phone number and password.  After that, you’re ready to install the devices.  You also have the option to port over your current home phone number but that costs $40 and takes more time.

When you purchase the Ooma Core VoIP System, you receive an Ooma Hub and an Ooma Scout.  The hub is what connects into your network like a computer and is what does all the work.  The scout is hooked up anywhere you want additional phone lines.  1 scout is included but you can purchase extra scouts as you need them.  If you have a cordless base station phone with extra handsets, that is ideal because only the base station needs to be near the hub or scout.  I highly recommend the Panasonic Dect 6.0 – 3 Handset System.

Ooma Hub backOoma recommends you install the Ooma Hub between your router and DSL/Cable Modem but I do not because it adds unnecessary complication to your network.  Instead, treat the hub like you would any computer and plug its “modem” port directly into your network router/switch.  As a result, ignore the “home” port.  You can plug a phone into the “phone” port and the “wall” port should plug into your home phone line system.  That is how the Ooma Scout communicates with the Ooma Hub, over your pre-existing phone wiring.  At at any phone jack, plug in the Ooma Scout which just has a “wall” and “phone” connection to hook up another phone.

Packet Prioritization

One reason Ooma wants to hook up right after your DSL/Cable Modem is because it can then prioritize the Ooma packets to be high priority.  Without that, heavy internet usage could cause your voice quality to degrade.  Instead, you can setup Quality of Service (QoS) in most modern routers.  In Linksys routers for example, look under “Applications & Gaming” and then “QoS”.  You will want to add “High” priority to the MAC address of your Ooma Hub.  The MAC address is located on the bottom of the hub.   As long as you’ve done QoS for the Ooma Hub or installed the hub in front of your router, your packet prioritization should work perfectly.

Quality of Service

Call Quality

I was most skeptical about the claimed landline call quality.  I’ve used many other VoIP services, the most popular of which is Skype.  Skype call quality does not compare to a landline in my opinion.  It is acceptable but not awesome.  Vonage is considered to be high quality but is very expensive for VoIP.  Ooma is free after you purchase the initial hardware.  The resultant call quality really did shock me.  It sounds terrific but you don’t have to believe me.  Check out all of these Amazon Reviews.

While I had great call quality, it doesn’t mean you will.  Because Ooma goes through your internet connection, the call quality is completely dependent on the quality of your internet.  Typically the upload speed is what is the biggest bottleneck.  Ooma recommends you have at least 256Kbps.  I have a 768Kbps plan and get about 670Kbps on average.  It appears Ooma tends to use about 100Kbps so it makes sense they recommend more so you have room to make calls while still using your internet for other things.

I attempted to see if I could push my internet connection to its limits and see how Ooma would react.  I did 2 Ooma voice calls (via the premier plan’s 2nd line), 1 iChat video, while also downloading an HD movie and uploading large files to servers.  Ooma call quality did not degrade at all.  In part, this is because the Ooma data packets were higher priority than all the others.  So you can push your internet usage as much as you can and the Ooma calls should not degrade.

Faxing over VoIP is notoriously difficult due the way the compression virtually destroys the fax data stream.  Impressively, faxing over Ooma does seem to work.  They don’t guarantee it will work but it did work in my tests. You have to dial *99 from your fax machine before the number.  It is unclear exactly what this *99 does but I assume it tells Ooma to prepare for a fax and it can then optimize for that.  They imply that the shorter the number of pages are you sending, the better your chances of success.


One really neat feature I feel I have to mention is the blacklists.  This is only a premier feature but it is really cool.  Lets say you get a call from a telemarketer.  Feel free to hang up on them or taunt them as you wish but afterwards, login to ooma.com and blacklist that number.  You don’t even have to enter it, you just select it from your call history.  Then that number can never call you again.  Instead, they will hear a very pleasant voice telling them they are blocked.  In addition to the personal blacklist you can maintain, there is also a community blacklist.  If enough other Ooma users mark a number as blacklisted, then it will eventually be blocked for everyone using the community blacklist even if they’ve never called you.  This is actually how spam blockers work so I consider it a phone spam blocker.  The last remaining unwanted call I get is from telemarketers who block their number.  You can setup Ooma to not ring if no caller-ID information is available.  In all of these blocking solutions, you have the choice to simply block them or send them directly to voicemail.


The Real Cost

If you used a VoIP service that required your computer to be on 24/7, you’ve got to pay for the high power usage of your computer.  The Ooma Hub uses about 10 watts so it will add very little to your electric bill.  If you want the premier service that offers some very attractive extra features, it is $12.99/month or $99.99/year.  The initial hardware purchase is over $200 but hopefully the hardware will lasts for years.  It is essentially like a router and routers usually last for years.  If your hub broke, you’d have to contact Ooma to get it replaced and that cost is unclear.  For me, having the hub and the scout was all I need but some people might need additional Ooma Scouts and those are not that cheap at $69.99 each.  There is no charge for the normal Ooma service plan.  They do technically have a 3,000 minutes/month limit but claim they have never actually shut anyone off due to that.  They say they only have an official limit to prevent commercial use.

The Company

So the calls are great, the service is free, but will this company survive?  That’s perhaps the biggest concern.  Ooma, Inc. is a privately held company so not much is known about their profitability.  The risk is that you buy a $200+ hub that becomes worthless when the company goes under.  On the other hand, the company has shown signs that they may have an ok future.  Currently they only make money off of the hardware sales and premier plan.  They have also said they are looking into business solutions such as an Ooma service with 8 phone lines.  This could be very lucrative for Ooma and allow them to continue to offer their free service indefinitely.


If you are willing to take on the risk of dealing with a company you don’t know much about, the payoff could be big in phone bill savings.  I didn’t believe all the amazon positive reviews but in the end, I have to agree with them.  The service has worked great.  I like some of the extra premier features like the blacklist and extra phone line and phone number.  I have a local phone number but also a number near relatives across the country so that they can call me without paying long distance.  You can’t do that with a real phone line, nor the blacklists.

Ooma is relatively easy to hookup and use.  The extra features and nice website make me highly recommend it.

NASA Astronauts Can’t Watch DVDs

NASA Astronauts

From today’s Associated Press:

HOUSTON — Atlantis astronauts fixed the Hubble Space Telescope so it could beam cosmic pictures to Earth, but playing DVDs on their laptops is proving too difficult.

With an unwanted off day Friday because thunderstorms prevented their scheduled landing, the astronauts intended to pass the time by watching movies they brought on the mission. But when they tried to play them, they found out their laptops didn’t have the proper software.

Engineers on the ground tried to troubleshoot the problem — just as they did when a hand rail almost prevented spacewalkers from fixing one instrument in Hubble. After more than an hour with no solution, the astronauts gave up.

Astronaut John Grunsfeld radioed to Earth that they’d have to wait to watch something at a terrestrial movie theater.

So fixing a giant telescope in space worked fine, but getting their laptops to play a DVD didn’t work. I certainly sympathize as Windows typically needs additional codecs loaded to play DVDs. They should have had a copy of the free VLC media player.

No Home Phone? Try Skype

Many people are beginning to abandon their home phone lines because they simply don’t use them much any more.  $35 for a basic phone line plus long distance bills on top of that is expensive compared to the alternatives.  Almost everyone has a cell phone and will simply use that instead.  However, cell phone plans have limited minutes.  What happens when you need extra minutes?  That’s where Skype comes in as a great complement to the home with no home phone.

skype_logoIn case you have never heard of Skype, it is essentially a phone service that works over the internet.  A Skype user can call another Skype user for free but a Skype user can also call real phone numbers at an extremely low price.  Skype is also great for international calls.  It is even more valuable now because you no longer need to use Skype via your computer.  There are now mobile Skype programs made for many devices including the iPhone, PSP, and several mobile phones.  The iPod Touch can run all iPhone apps as well so those who hate AT&T can still use the Skype iPhone app.  All you need beyond that is internet access which almost everyone already has at home.


One way to pay for Skype-to-phone calls is to purchase SkypeOut Credit.  Once you have credit on your Skype account, you can pay per minute.  There are various prices for each country according to this rate chart.  Calls to the US cost just $0.021 per minute.

Skype Subscription

If you plan on making at least 150 minutes of calls per month, a Skype Subscription will be by far the cheapest.  For just $2.95/month, you can get unlimited Skype-to-phone US calls.  If you have an iPhone and don’t want to use your AT&T minutes, just launch the free Skype app and make the call for free when you are at home where your iPhone is on your wifi.  If you pay for 12 months at a time, it is even cheaper.

Skype Online Phone Number

Without the Skype online phone number, when you call someone, the Caller ID typically shows a number with all zeros. With a skype phone number, you can get a number in any area code you like.  It will also give other people a way to call you without them needing to use Skype.  A voicemail service is also included with the phone number.  If you have a Skype subscription, you get a 50% discount on a Skype online phone number.

Skype Quality

While Skype is incredibly cheap compared to a home phone line, the call quality is not quite as good typically and may vary greatly depending on the quality of your internet access.  Dropped calls can occur as well as audio breakups.  Overall, in my experience, I would say it is on par with AT&T cell phone quality though.  For the price, it is a great value.

Netbooks versus Notebooks

Dell Mini 9 NetbookMany DC area clients have asked me whether they should buy a netbook or a full notebook.

Netbooks (small laptops) have become very popular. We have written several articles about them. They started with the Acer Eee PC, followed by the Aspire Aspire One, then proliferating to dozens of models from suppliers including Dell and HP.


Netbooks are typically cheaper, having started out at the $299 price point. Old models can be found for less and new models are now over $500.

This is a decent price for a computer, but keep in mind that 1) the netbook does not have a CD/DVD drive and 2) there are often online deals from sites such as Newegg that will provide a full size laptop for the same price. Dell also has online deals and stackable coupons periodically which you can find out about at Slickdeals.


If you are looking for the smallest laptop possible, then you want a netbook. Be sure to try one though, because typing on a smaller keyboard and using a smaller screen make using a netbook less practical for longer stretches of work. DC area residents can go to Microcenter in Fairfax, Virginia to type on and test lots of netbooks and notebooks.


Netbooks are typically much slower, using Atom CPUs. A new line of Atoms, combined with the NVIDIA Ion platform, will allow full HD video decoding, so these laptops are getting faster. Still, one of the reasons that these laptops are cheaper is that they are slower. This is fine if you are typically just browsing the web and writing email. But if you need to use a few programs at once or work in more complex programs, the netbooks will feel a little slower.

Operating Systems

Netbooks typically come with Windows XP or a version of Linux, which is free and cuts down the cost. Linux is a great operating system that I use regularly. However, if you have regular software such as Word and Excel that you want to use, you will find it difficult to load that software on a Linux computer. There are good open source alternatives such as Open Office if you are okay using something that is similar to Office.


Laptops are a very personal purchase, depending on your preference on keyboard, mouse, and screen size. While I use netbooks for low-weight traveling, I would not use them to replace a laptop for extended use.